BEIRUT: At least 37 civilians were killed yesterday in Syrian government air strikes near Damascus, while at least 13 people died as rebels fired a barrage of rockets into the capital, a monitor said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least four children were among the dead in regime strikes on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region, where some 120 people were also wounded. The death toll was likely to rise further, it said. The air raids hit the towns of Douma, Saqba, Kafr Batna and Hammouriyeh in the rebel stronghold. An AFP photographer in Douma saw more than a dozen bodies in makeshift plastic shrouds in a field hospital where medical workers struggled to aid the wounded. Elsewhere, he also saw two plastic shrouds opened at the top to reveal the faces of two children, their skin yellow and blood-speckled. Inside a clinic, a young boy wept and hugged his legs – one roughly bandaged – as he sat on a bloodsmeared floor next to other injured residents. The strikes came as rebels fired dozens of rockets into Damascus. The Observatory, without specifying whether the raids or the Damascus attack came first, said at least 13 people, among them 10 civilians, were killed as a barrage of more than 50 rockets slammed into the capital. It said another 60 people were wounded.
Syria’s antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim told AFP by telephone from Damascus that rockets had struck near the capital’s museum and historic citadel. “The deputy director in charge of our mosaic pieces, Qassem Yahya, was killed. He was 38,” Abdulkarim said. “Another rocket fell by the museum’s entrance and a passerby was killed,” the director added. Syria’s state news agency SANA, citing a police source, put the toll at five dead with 55 injured, “most of them children and women.” Rebels often fire into the capital from rear bases on its outskirts, including at times barrages of hundreds of missiles. Rights groups have condemned indiscriminate rebel rocket fire as amounting to war crimes. The government regularly carries out air strikes against rebel-held areas on the outskirts of Damascus, particularly Eastern Ghouta, which is also under regime siege. Yesterday, Amnesty International accused the government of war crimes against Eastern Ghouta residents, saying heavy aerial bombardment was compounding misery created by the blockade. S eparately, Syria’s warring parties declared a 48-hour ceasefire in two frontline areas yesterday after unprecedented mediation from Turkey and Iran, signalling a new approach by some of the main regional backers of the opposing sides.
The ceasefire halted fighting between insurgents on the one hand, and the army and its Lebanese militant Hezbollah allies on the other, in the rebel-held town of Zabadani and in a pair of Shiite villages in Idlib province. The two areas are strongholds of each side under ferocious attack by the other. Sources familiar with the talks, which have been under way for weeks, said the truce could be extended to give time for ongoing negotiations aimed at evacuating civilians and combatants. Three officials close to Damascus described the truce as a result of mediation by Turkey, which backs rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad, and Iran, whose support has been vital to his survival. It adds to recent signs of new efforts in the region to end diplomatic deadlock over a conflict that has killed a quarter of a million people, made 10 million homeless, left swathes of Syria in the hands of Islamic State militants and divided the countries of the Middle East on sectarian grounds.
After four years in which diplomats made no headway towards peace, countries that support Assad and his opponents have been quietly discussing ways to end the war and tackle the common threat from Islamic State. But Assad’s fate remains a major obstacle to the new diplomatic effort. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Damascus yesterday and met with Assad. He was expected to discuss a new peace plan for Syria. Before he arrived, rebels bombarded the capital with rockets and the government launched air strikes on nearby rebel positions. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said 13 people were killed and 20 wounded by the rebel rockets, and 31 killed in the government air strikes. Sources on both sides of the civil war told Reuters earlier yesterday the truce was to begin at 6 am (0300 GMT), and negotiations would continue. The rebel group Ahrar al- Sham had led the talks on the insurgents’ side. “A ceasefire began at 6 am today for 48 hours to halt military operations in Zabadani,” Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV reported. “It also includes the two villages of Al-Foua and Kefraya in the Idlib countryside.” Abu Walid Al-Zabadani, a fighter with Ahrar al Sham in Zabadani, said: “We have stopped firing. It’s from both sides.” “As fighters on the ground, we were not interested in this ceasefire, but it is led by our commanders and we have to abide by their orders,” he told Reuters from Zabadani. A second rebel said there were 200 injured insurgent fighters in the town. Hezbollah said Islamic State gunmen had opened fire in Zabadani in an attempt to break the ceasefire but other insurgent groups had intervened to stop them. Zabadani, about 45 km northwest of the capital Damascus and about 10 km from the border with Lebanon, has been the focus of a weeks-long offensive by the army and Hezbollah aimed at wresting control of the town from rebels. The two Shiite villages of Al-Foua and Kefraya, meanwhile, have been targeted in a parallel offensive by an insurgent alliance that includes both the Sunni Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
The United Nations envoy for Syria said last month that government air strikes had caused widespread death and destruction in Zabadani, and expressed concern that civilians were trapped both there and in the two Shiite villages. Sources on both sides say negotiations are underway about a possible evacuation of civilians from the two villages, and a withdrawal of rebel fighters from Zabadani. The evacuation of the critically wounded had been agreed but logistics were still being worked out. Ahrar al-Sham said last week it was holding talks with an Iranian delegation over Zabadani. While years of diplomacy have so far made no progress towards ending the war, there are signs of a new push in recent weeks following Iran’s nuclear deal last month with major powers including both the United States and Russia. Turkey, a major regional power and opponent of Assad, is revamping its strategy towards the Syria war. It is pressing for a buffer zone in Syria near its frontier, free of Islamic State fighters and controlled by opponents of Assad. — Agencies